PART I ~ FEBRUARY 2019
Sullivan Barlow glanced from the handwritten, make that scribbled disposition form in front of her to the typed version on the computer screen. She’d thought the high school students during her last practicum had crappy penmanship. So, did this guy. She squinted at the signature block again. Yes, it was Master Sergeant Tate Murphy - - if she ever met him, she’d suggest he repeat third grade and learn cursive.
No, she wouldn’t. She was a Sergeant First Class, an E-7, after all. She’d be polite and recommend he find a pharmacist to decipher his hieroglyphics – okay it was official. She was having a bad day. She pushed back from the desk and leaned down to rub her aching left leg. She’d worked in worse conditions than Major Harper’s office. For a moment, she remembered dust, sand and overwhelming heat. Then, she shook her head.
No, Sully. Concentrate on the moment. Think about here and now.
The room was large with two desks facing each other. Weak February sunshine filtered through the mini blinds on the windows to her right, laying patterns on the carpeted floor. The American flag stood neatly in the stand to her left, accompanied by the Washington state flag and the one for Fort Clark. Looking at the Stars and Stripes always reminded her of that last flight home and the tri-folded flag on her lap.
She choked on the rising lump in her throat. She’d sat and held that flag on her lap on the entire flight, refusing the meals and beverages the overly sympathetic flight attendants offered. ‘I wish things were different. I want a do-over. If I could go back in time - - -. Oh Raven, I’m so sorry.’
She closed her eyes for a moment, blinked hard before she focused on the computer screen again. She always tried to avoid glancing at the U.S. flag and the glassed-in bookcases behind the stand. File cabinets lined the wall that held the same door to the hall and the break-room where she could find a cup of coffee. That was if she wanted to try walking that far when her ankle throbbed in its own rhythm, pressing against her combat boot.
Okay, she’d upgrade the day from being bad to officially sucking.
Her leg hurt. She had a stack of reports from a moron to type. She repeated her mantra. Don’t complain, things can always be worse. At least nobody is trying to kill me.
“Haven’t you finished those reports yet? You’ve been typing for three days.”
Sully looked from the stack of paperwork to the blonde fashion plate in front of the desk. She was slipping. She should have heard the click of high heels in the hall before Anise Tyler, the civilian clerk in charge returned to the office. “It’d go faster if you helped instead of disappearing to the break-room every hour.”
“Speaking of that, it’s a mess.” In a clinging light blue dress that matched her heels, the civilian liaison sauntered across to her desk and eased into the leather chair. “I told Mr. Edwards you’d clean it up. You’ll find the mop in the utility closet at the end of the hall.”
“Excuse you.” Sully counted silently to ten, the advice one of the other sergeants in her company had given for dealing with idiots. It didn’t work this time. “You’re joking, right?”
“Do I look like it?” Anise smiled, but it didn’t touch pale blue eyes. Pleasure filled the lovely face. “You can go clean it now and then come finish those reports.”
“I don’t think so.” Sully rose to her feet, leaning on the desk for support, hoping the other woman didn’t see the actual physical weakness in her stance, pinning Anise with an icy glare. “Let me make one thing clear, Ms. Tyler. I am a Sergeant First Class. I’ve done three tours in the sandbox and I’m here for light duty. I am not here to scrub floors, wash windows, or take out your trash. I don’t give garbage. I don’t take garbage. I am not in the garbage business. I’ll do your correspondence. I won’t do your dirty work. Got it?”
The sound of slow applause drew Sully’s attention to the door and away from the sputtering woman on the other side of the room. A tall, dark-haired man in camouflage fatigues stood in the doorway. Oh crap, Sully thought. She was in for it now. She should have remembered she was here temporarily and controlled her temper, not actually told the full-time office manager where to go. Of course, there’d been an audience. I never catch a break. What a hell of a time for the major to arrive.
From the smile to the dark blue eyes, she knew she’d seen that ruggedly handsome face before. Where? A memory fluttered. A deep voice rumbling with laughter, a strong hand reaching across her to pour two glasses of golden Chardonnay, a sweet wine kiss, then another, deeper. She shook her head. She was losing it. He was a stranger. He had to be a stranger. And he was a rude one too. He hadn't even come into the office. He just stood in the doorway staring at her like she was the most entertaining show in town.
“And you are?” Sully asked.
“Master Sergeant Murphy. Are you the person who has been transcribing my reports and emailing them back to me? I didn’t recognize your initials, ‘sb’.” His smile faded and he looked toward Anise. “You did check her security clearance before passing on my notes, didn’t you, Ms. Tyler?”
Red mottled under the makeup and Anise obviously gulped for air. She hadn’t and the three of them knew it.
Pity stirred in Sully and she cleared her throat. “I am qualified to type these bloody reports in every way, Master Sergeant Tate Murphy but I have to say it would be much easier if you’d learned to scribe a coherent hand.”
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